I wrote earlier last week that Rick Hendrick needed to get a quick grasp on this Kyle Larson vs Chase Elliott potential drama before it got out of control.
See, Hendrick Motorsports was very open to the fact last year that a large part of their new found success was a new culture that was being established within their North Carolina walls. While they had four separate teams within the organization, they would operate as one.
One team, one goal. One for all. No moving pieces in opposite direction. HMS wasn’t the 5 team (Kyle Larson), the 9 team (Chase Elliott), the 24 team (William Byron) and the 48 team (Alex Bowman). They were one.
Unfortunately, all that mantra was being threatened by a run-in between Larson and Elliott at Fontana. Towards the end of the race, Elliott had a run on Larson and Joey Logano for the lead and while Larson was moving to side draft Logano coming across the finish line, he moved up to break the air and push him forward. While doing so, he inadvertently pushed Elliott into the wall.
Larson said then that he didn’t know Elliott was there. His spotter even took the blame in saying he was focused on Logano and didn’t alert Larson that Elliott was outside until it was too late. Elliott, wasn’t very happy with Larson and rightfully so.
HMS officials and Larson said then that they’d all sit down with Elliott and his team to clear the air. Sounds like that happened and the big boss man led the talks.
“Rick called a meeting with all four teams and just kind of reiterated his expectations with us drivers, so it’s good to get those reminders every now and then,” Larson said Saturday from Las Vegas.
“We’ll continue to race good in the future with each other, so I’ll catch up more with Chase here in a little bit and we’ll be good.”
He said that they didn’t get to meet in person, but it was the first time since he’s been at HMS that Hendrick himself led the meeting.
“(Hendrick’s) been to competition meetings and stuff like that, and we’ve had multiple meetings about different things,” Larson said. “But as far as racing and stuff, that’s the first one I can remember him getting involved in.
“I think we all know his expectations and after the incident last weekend, it was good for him to get involved again and tell us what the expectations are.”
Well, here we were again at the end of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. HMS restarted 1-2-3 in overtime. All three on just two tires while the best cars over the second half of the race restarted fourth and fifth on four scuffed tires.
Would they play nicely?
Well, with only the fourth overtime in Cup Series history at Vegas, it only allowed for two green flag laps until the checkered. It allowed Larson and Bowman to pull away and battle each other for the win.
Bowman, prevailed by just .178-seconds in what was the third closest finish in Vegas history over Larson who netted his third runner-up in 12 starts on the 1.5-mile track. That ties Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most ever there.
“This thing was so fast all day. Just never really had the track position we needed to show it,” Bowman said. “Man, what a call by (crew chief) Greg Ives and the guys to take two (tires) there. Obviously it paid off. Racing Kyle (Larson) is always fun. Got to race him for a couple wins. We’ve always raced each other super clean and super respectfully. Just can’t say enough about these guys. It’s been a pretty awful start to the year, so to come out here and get a win on a last restart deal is pretty special.”
Bowman says even he was shocked that the two tires worked.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “On the front row there, you have to run so much throttle. We had been free on the short run, pretty good on the long run. I mean, I kind of feel like I know. Obviously a lot has changed with this race car, but typically two tires tighten you up a ton.
“We were on old tires earlier in the day, like cold old tires. When we had the pit road issue, we came back and put old tires on. I was super tight the whole run. I was worried we were going to be super tight.
“On the front row, you got to drive it like it’s going to stick. Thankfully it stuck.”
“I was happy we made that call,” said Larson. “It’s kind of what I wanted to do and when I heard them say we were taking two tires, I was pleased by it. The grip was surprising. I had good grip there on two tires. I just got a little too focused on side-drafting him into (turn) three. Maybe if I could play it back again, I would try and just get a better arc and angle into three because when I got in there next to him, I just got really tight and had to lift out of the throttle.”
After how last week went between Larson and Chase Elliott, was Bowman thinking in his mind that with how Rick Hendrick led a meeting this past week that he’d take it easy on him?
“Uhm, I don’t know. I don’t know that there was, like, really something Kyle could have done any differently, or even if he was trying to be dirty about anything,” Bowman said. “He was super tight on my door, side drafting me as hard as he could. He just ended up getting tight in three and four.
“I think the talk was a big wake-up call. Obviously when Mr. H calls a meeting like that, it gets your attention, it’s always going to. Anytime Mr. H talks, he’s got your attention, but especially in a situation like that.
“I think Kyle and I historically have always raced each other really clean. I think that this was no different.”
This is good for them all because until they all talked HMS wasn’t operating as one team. There’s separation there. Now, they’ve proven that it’s squashed and HMS is sitting here with half of their fleet already locked into the playoffs with a start to the season that saw them sweep the front row for the Daytona 500 and win the next two races after.
“They raced really, really hard, I know that,” Jeff Gordon said of watching his cars race there at the end.
“I mean, when I came to Hendrick Motorsports it was: Race hard but don’t wreck your teammates. That’s what you do. You want to go race your teammates for wins and settle it among yourselves.
“I thought they raced one another clean but very aggressively. I talked to Kyle Larson there at the end. He said he was just trying really hard to get to the outside, stay on the outside of Alex, maybe even pushed it a little bit too hard, got the car tight.
“Alex, I was talking to him in Victory Lane, he’s like, I drove in there as hard as I possibly could. I wasn’t sure if it was going to stick, and it did.
“The conversation that Rick had with us was really more pertaining to what happened at the end of that race last week, those similar types of scenarios, blocking, also working through when things like that happen how you work through it internally.”
Does 2022 now rival 2021?
The 2021 season was extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization was able accomplish. They took home their second straight championship via Larson’s triumph in Phoenix. It was their 17th win of the season.
Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 was the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races last season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).
The Hendrick Motorsport’s foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.
“Absolutely,” Hendrick said on if he thinks the organization is back where it needs to be in terms of dominance. “I mean, when you have a Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, you won four championships in a row, you won a ton of races, then you kind of go through a rebuilding year, you don’t Jeff or Jimmie or Dale, and you’ve got Alex Bowman and William Byron and Chase Elliott.
“You watch Larson. He say, Hey, he’s got a tremendous amount of talent. Can he be a team player? Can he come in an organization and have an impact, really help the other guys? The answer to all those is yes.
“I’ve been amazed with William Byron, his year. You work at where he was, if he had gotten in the Roval, he looked like he was going to win that race. He could have been a player in the championship.
“Alex won four races. Chase is going for the back-to-back championship. When you have everybody working together, when you have the crew chiefs not trying to hide things but legitimately wanting to help each other and make all the cars better. Communication between the drivers where you don’t have a driver that’s upset with the other driver or jealous, just building a wall between them.
“Again, it’s the best we’ve ever had when you look at four crew chiefs and four drivers. We had Jimmie Johnson that won seven, won five in a row. The rest of the organization was running at that par.
“This has been a phenomenal year for us.”
They led the fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); but set a new Hendrick Motorsports team record that stood for 12 years (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.
Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 33 finishes inside the top two; most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 83 top-10 finishes; the team’s second-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 55 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 28 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021.
Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2004, the 2021 is the first time Hendrick Motorsports has placed two drivers in the Championship 4 Round (Elliott, Larson). Impressively, Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one Playoff race in each of the 17 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 53 postseason wins, most all-time.